The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg examines how the early scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries were aware of the theological implications of their work.

There's a fair claim that the Royal Society saw its first shoots just over the road from the Sheldonian Theatre, in the gardens of Wadham College in the 1650s. The young Warden of Wadham, Dr Wilkins, had written a paper called 'How One Might Fly to the Moon'. And he was no mean politician. A Cromwellian through marriage, he attracted young Royalists to his college and later nipped over from Cromwell to Charles II without any recorded angst.

Wilkins encouraged a group of like-minded young gentlemen to take on the new philosophy of the observation and testing of Nature, as distinguished from theory alone. To inquire. To experiment. To interrogate Nature.

One thing that did come from Wadham, as well as the men who went on to London formally to start the Society, was the idea of a collegiate group: the notion of sharing ideas and of working as a group, and of commenting on and examining each other's ideas. This was key to the Society.

When Christopher Wren and the others moved to London to greet the new king, the group congregated around Gresham College. This had been founded by an Elizabethan philanthropist. It became a unique mix of high learning and public availability: the prototype of the Open University. At Gresham College, seven handsomely subsidised professors gave academic lectures that could be attended by anybody at all. That too became one of the guiding principles of the Society: that knowledge was free, open and available to all.

These men looked back to the great Elizabethan lawyer, courtier and essayist, Francis Bacon. He famously declared that 'knowledge is power' and he saw two books in the world, Nature and the Scriptures. To get knowledge from Nature it had to be questioned in the court of the mind; 'tortured' was another word he used. And that knowledge would reveal God's way and add to the relief of Man's estate.

The Royal Society was not the first of its kind. In the immediate past, there was the Academy of the Lynxes, formed in Rome in 1603, led by Frederico Cesi, to which Galileo belonged. Then there was the Academy of Experiment formed in Florence in 1567 by the Medici princes. One can trace these organisations back through the courts of the Caliphs in the early mediaeval Arab world, to the Academy of Plato in Athens. In all cases, these groups of inquirers had been small in number. Most had been in immediate contact with their patrons. Then there was the Parisian Royal Academy of Science, officially to be commissioned to discharge projects in the interests of the Crown.

The Royal Society was not like any of these. It was there 'for the Promoting of physico-mathematico experimental learning'. And 'Nullius in verba' was its motto. 'Take no man's word.' Experimenting was believing. Its open collectivity, its focus on experimental demonstrations, its assurance that these trials would reveal the works of God, its sense that economic and commercial projects are part of the divine plan and its literary determination to describe these trials and observations in such a way that they can be followed by all readers and trusted by them, makes it unique. Above all, it was independent. Crucial then as today. The monarch never attended its meetings.

One thing that strikes me about all these groups and many other key influential intellectual groups in science, art and philosophy, is how small was their membership. In our age of mass education it seems almost against Nature that so few so often accomplished so much. Is there something in smallness itself, as the man claimed, that is not only beautiful but, on significant occasions, uniquely effective? It has happened rather often. In fifth-century BC Athens, in the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo, in Shakespeare's London, the Edinburgh Enlightenment, in mid twentieth-century Cambridge, in the music of the Big Five in late-nineteenth-century Russia. Is something given to a small clique of brilliant and disputatious contemporaries to dig deeper?

The fact that we are in Oxford, famous in the Latin-speaking Christian world in the thirteenth century for its own small group of philosophers like Duns Scotus and William of Occam, brings me to a core subject in this observational history: that it charts the movement over centuries from one great dominating system in Europe and its colonies - Christianity - to what appears to be its great successor - science.

Long gone, I trust, are the days when the work of the mediaeval schoolmen could be dismissed. Men like Aquinas, who tried to integrate Aristotle with Augustine, were clearly persons of the highest talent. That they were working on material now by many discredited does not take away from the strength of their minds or their processes of thought. They worked on what they had. It does, though, show us what power there was in church thinking and also in the intense experience of faith. It was such an experience that brought Aquinas to silence in the last few months of his life, after a vision that convinced him of the reality of faith more than all his reasoning had done. And the overlapping of the two systems - Christianity and science - illustrates how slowly institutions guarding the levers of knowledge allow themselves to be displaced or even modified. Christianity itself carried within it pagan acts and polytheistic and classical practices that were even carried over into the New Testament.

The Royal Society Charter said it was devoted 'to the glory of God the Creator and the advantage of the human race ...'. Yet the Fellows were forbidden to meddle 'with divine metaphysics and morals'. Nor were politics allowed. But all the key players in science around that time - Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton - understood what was at stake in the revolution they were engineering. This was the place and fate of the soul. Newton's proof that all space obeyed the same laws abolished the essential separate and different space kept by Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas for God and the soul. Where now could God and the soul actually exist? Therefore, what place did God and His Faith have in the new philosophy, the new knowledge?

From the beginning, the Royal Society insisted that Nature must be studied closely, since it is God's other book, alongside Scripture, as their tutelary figure, Francis Bacon, had said. And they believed the best way to make sense of this book of Nature was by conducting many different, instrumentally directed, observations and experiments on it. Put Nature to the question. Interrogate it, said Bacon the lawyer.

The Civil War had taught men such as John Wilkins and Robert Boyle that public religious controversy led to conflict, and the aim of the Royal Society, as its first historian Thomas Spratt put it in 1667, was to show 'an unusual sight to the English nation, that men of disagreeing parties and ways of life have forgotten to hate, and have met in the unanimous advancement of the same works'.

These were the early men of observational and experimental science, yet Robert Boyle, in the late seventeenth century, one of the geniuses of the group, whose Law - Boyle's Law - proved early on that the Society could do Big Science, published at enormous length on the intimate relation between admiration of the works of God and the great advantages experimental philosophy would bring to religious faith and vice versa.

Joseph Priestley, another Fellow, in the late eighteenth century saw a direct link between the right religion (in his case Dissenting Protestantism) and the right kind of natural knowledge. He used his chemical and electrical experiments to promote his dissenting views about the character of divinity. In the twentieth century, Arthur Eddington, another Fellow, was clear about the basic unity of his own spirituality as a Quaker and the principles of modern physics. He argued that mystical religious experience and modern physical science were consistent and indeed supported each other, as he made clear in public lectures.

Others were more careful in their public statements. Newton was the most significant example. He was worried about the public reaction to his unorthodox religious views, which were very close to a Unitarianism that would have had him cast out of Cambridge, so he kept quiet about them. Some of his closest allies, like William Whiston and Samuel Clarke, got into terrible public trouble by expressing these views. Newton saw God as the direct cause of gravity. And he said of space that it was 'as it were, God's sensorium' - seeing space as the realm of divine ideas. Finally, Michael Faraday, similarly cautious, was a Sandemanian, and that rigorous sect's views informed his science and that of many other eminent Fellows of the Royal Society. Non-Brits, especially the French, were always puzzled by the religious component in the thinking of British scientists, often the greatest British scientists through the centuries. Even Darwin was sure that his account of speciation with natural selection as one of its engines was not logically connected with atheism.

Indeed, Simon Schaffer, the eminent Cambridge historian of the Philosophy of Science, has developed this. He sees three techniques characteristic of the Royal Society Project: a social technique (work together, witness together, trade together); a material technique (use instruments and machines, dissect, experiment, analyse); and a literary technique (describe these trials and observations in so much detail that the descriptions can be followed by all readers and trusted by them).

Schaffer suggests that we can find some reasons for all this within the specifics of early modern providentialism. He argues that there is an aspect of natural theology that characterises the emergent function of the Royal Society.

It is a strand worth exploring. Paul Davis seems to come near the core of it, when he writes 'man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe'. He goes on: 'The grounds for this scepticism stemmed from advances in molecular biology and the growing understanding of life's extraordinary complexity, suggesting to many that the origin of life here must have involved a statistical fluke of stupendous proportions unlikely to have happened twice.' A unique intervention.

Davis insists that 'we still lack an accepted theory of life's origin'. 'In 1859,' he writes, 'Charles Darwin gave a convincing theory of how life has evolved over billions of years from simple microbes to the richness and diversity of the biosphere we see today. But he pointedly left out of his account how life got started in the first place.' Some of the questions religions seek to answer are the questions science seeks to answer by other routes.

There is a similar mystery surrounding the notion of what made the Big Bang. Perhaps that will be solved in the tunnels of Switzerland, perhaps the origin of life will be uncovered, perhaps science will indeed live up to its almost mythical status that it can solve everything and save everything. But these two unresolved problems - the uniqueness of it and the origin of it - and the visceral, mystical, hitherto inexplicable experiences that came and come to people can still give us pause. I think it's not enough nor is it respectful merely to dismiss this. This is not for a minute to accept Creationism as a science. It is, though, worth mentioning, in these observations, that the obsession with the First Cause, a prime mover - an imaginative and mythical reality in so many civilisations was transferred directly from religion into science.

Newton, a religious man, needed a first cause, a source, a beginning. Today's scientists spend billions at CERN on the still elusive trail of the first particle - with an intensity on the invisible that makes the study of medieval mangels dancing on the point of a needle seem perfectly comprehensible.

Why this yearning, this obsession with a first cause? And was the Big Bang the beginning or the end of something? And is a particle without thought or meaning or intention? These and other questions, it seems to me, duck an dodge between the mystical and the physical. The God of institutions and the luxuriant myth of resurrection and personal parlance with a deity are to be deeply questioned. But the Christian metaphor is magnificent, the ,morality of the Beatitudes is the essence of goodness, the mysticism still intriguing and unfathomed.

There's one sense in which the Bible has been jolly useful for the Royal Society. It is a most convenient and happily vulnerable punchbag; the Enlightenment, once it began to roll, pummelled away at the Christian God and built up its muscles in the process. It is a wonderful hone to new thought.

On the other hand, science owes a great deal to the Bible, especially in Britain to the King James Version, finally translated in 1611 into the English language - and what language! William Tyndale had worked on the Bible before that of King James, who relied 80 per cent on Tyndale's translation. But it was when the Bible came into the native tongue at the beginning of the seventeenth century that it had an effect that was to rumble through to the Fellows' Gardens in Wadham College in the 1650s.

Politics and other matters like science could be talked about vividly and openly through the Bible stories and parables and instances in the Bible. The freedom-fighting pamphlet wars of the 1640s could never have happened had the Bible still been in Latin. Language became free for all. The Word of God was now in the common tongue and could provide material for powerful, fateful argument. It was a liberation. As was the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

After all, if you could kill a king, one who had ruled by Divine Right, the representative of God on earth, then all things were possible. The new knowledge suggested by Francis Bacon and spurred by many thinkers in Europe burst out in force in the seventeenth century, with the language to service it and the confidence to overthrow the old order and argue for the new. Most of all, it set out to discover by experiments the secrets of that other great book - Nature.

It's significant that this was later explored by Coleridge and Wordsworth, close friends of one of the Society's most brilliant presidents, Humphry Davy. In fact, Wordsworth and Coleridge entrusted the editing of their precious Lyrical Ballads to Davy before publication. It is a work shot through with a pantheistic notion of the world and contains lines that Davy appears to have accepted from Wordsworth, who wrote, in 'The Tables Turned':

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
... Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double ...
... [We have] a
world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless -
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

Science coupled with a new natural theology. The two horses pulling the one chariot.

It seems to me that it was at that time not difficult for some of the greatest minds to hold that two or even more truths about life were self-evident, that no one theory about life could be comprehensive enough to describe it. Only a life itself can do that.

It seems a long way from Wadham Gardens, and you might remember that the brilliant and politic Warden, Dr Wilkins, wrote a paper in the 1650s on 'how man might fly to the moon'.

Well, if spirits hover around (and if they do, Oxford is one place they will hover), we could tell the Warden - it took a little time, but the descendants of your young experimental natural philosophers got there. Yes, they got to the moon; and far, far beyond.

This is an edited extract from the annual Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Lecture, 'Notes from an Amateur on the History of the Royal Society', given by Lord Bragg of Wigton at the Sheldonian Theatre on Wednesday 17 March and organised together with the Royal Society. Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster and author, has also been involved in the 350th-anniversary celebrations of the Royal Society, as well as this year's 400th anniversary of the founding of Wadham College.